Playoffs? Clippers coach Tyronn Lue still experimenting with rotations

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Andrew Greif
·4 min read
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Los Angeles Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue yells from the bench during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday, April 4, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue yells instructions from the sideline during a recent game at Staples Center. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Asked whether he had begun to look ahead at playoff matchups, or preferred certain first-round opponents, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue was still laughing while answering Tuesday after a win over Portland.

“I'd like to make the playoffs first, how about that?” the coach said. “Let's get in first and then we'll worry about the rest of the business later.”

The Clippers will be a playoff team. Since their midseason swoon entering March’s All-Star break, they have won 10 of 14 games behind the league’s second-best point differential and stand third in the Western Conference standings.

Their remaining schedule is the league's weakest, according to Tankathon, a site that tracks strength of schedule. A 20-game push begins Thursday with a “clash” against Phoenix — as Clippers star Paul George described the matchup against the West’s second-ranked team — with a roster that is as healthy as it has been since early March. After Patrick Beverley returned against Portland for his first game since March 11, the only Clipper still sidelined is center Serge Ibaka.

Merely reaching the postseason is not why the Clippers sent a half-decade worth of draft picks to Oklahoma City in 2019 to acquire Paul George, a move that led to the signing of Kawhi Leonard, nor is it why they dealt guard Lou Williams, the team’s “soul,” as president Lawrence Frank said last month, for point guard Rajon Rondo at the trade deadline.

A championship window that only is guaranteed to remain open through this summer, with Leonard set to become an unrestricted free agent in August, is why Lue would be using the final six weeks with one eye on potential rotations — particularly within a five-guard backcourt facing a scarcity of opportunities once Rondo, coming off an adductor injury, and Beverley are no longer encumbered by a minutes limit.

“We have a plan and just trying to see what it looks like,” Lue said, “and if it doesn’t work then we got 20 games to adjust and make it right.”

That plan began to manifest itself with lineups used in Tuesday’s 133-116 win against the Trail Blazers.

Terance Mann, the 6-foot-7 second-year wing who had averaged 13.9 points, 6.6 rebounds while shooting 52% in more than 24 minutes in his last nine games, played 10 minutes, his fewest since Feb. 3. Luke Kennard, averaging 20 minutes and 11.1 points on 52% shooting over his last eight games, played just three minutes.

Their opportunities will be determined “game-to-game” going forward as the team prioritizes getting veterans, and likely playoff constants, Rondo and Beverley up to speed.

“Luke and T-Mann just have to be ready, we already talked about that, had that communication” with them, Lue said. “It can be spot minutes. It can be no minutes. Those guys have really earned the opportunity to play and have done a great job in the game.

“But right now, we got some other guys we got to see where the rotation is going to be and what it looks like.”

As a long, defensively versatile wing who doesn’t need to dominate the ball to score, Mann is the most malleable of the guards, and could provide boosts of needed energy even in shorter doses.

How Lue chooses to dole future minutes between Kennard and Reggie Jackson, who averaged 11.8 points, 2.8 assists, 1.4 turnovers with 43% shooting during 12 starts in Beverley’s absence, could be more difficult once Rondo and Beverley are healthy enough to play more often.

Both can be facilitators but also have thrived as off-ball release valves when the offense breaks down. Each is , with each shooting better than 44% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers. Neither is a lockdown defender, which might be more of what Lue seeks in the playoffs given the team’s surplus of offense.

Because the rotations worked against Portland, Lue said he’ll stick with that blueprint moving forward for now. In the short term, that likely means a larger role for Jackson, who scored 23 minutes in 26 minutes and was exceptional as the Clippers held off Portland’s second-half rally.

UP NEXT

VS. PHOENIX

When: Thursday, 7 p.m.

On the air: TV: TNT; Radio: 570, 1330.

Update: In one of the more difficult back-to-backs in the Western Conference this season, the Suns play West-leading Utah on Wednesday before facing the Clippers a night later. Since the start of February, Phoenix is a league-leading 25-6 while dishing a league-high 27.9 assists per game.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.